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“Der Schokoladen-flieger” Berlin Airlift and its Importance in German History

June 26, 2020 marks the 72nd anniversary of the Berlin Airlift and since then many changes have taken place in Germany. It has been a roller coaster ride for Germany; going from ruins to riches, but the Berlin Airlift has an important place in the post-World War II Germany, that it decided the course of Germany as a nation and its foreign policy vis-à-vis Europe and the United States (US).


Berlin May 1945, the city was in ruins and the Red Army had taken the capital of Hitler's Germany in a massive battle district-by-district, street by street, room by room and at the end they raised their red banner atop the shattered Reichstag. More than half of Germany was now under Stalin's hand; with the western portions occupied by the Americans, British and French. while war still raged against Japan the victorious Allies met at Potsdam near Berlin to decide Germany's post-war fate. Germany was divided into four occupation zones controlled and managed by American, British, French, Soviet Union. Interestingly, even though Berlin as a city was over 100 miles deep in the Soviet occupied territory, had also got shared between the four allies. Some agreements had been made in a series of conferences, most importantly the ones in Yalta Conference, which was held jointly by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin; then later at Potsdam, between Harry S. Truman, Stalin, Churchill, and Clement Atlee (who succeeded Churchill). Each held by one of the “Siegermächte” (victorious powers). The western territories were occupied by the British and the US, while the Soviet Union was responsible for east Germany. One of the points agreed upon by all the parties involved in the conferences was that each part of Berlin should be supplied by its respective allied occupant. The agreement caused problems when the allies started occupying respective zones of operation in Berlin. The Americans, British and French, had to transport food and other essential goods into their zones which are deep inside Soviet occupation zone. Soviets did not have the same problem, as they were able to provide goods to their occupation zone from the surrounding Brandenburg agricultural area.

Rising Tensions:

The Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin made moves to consolidate his power and influence on the occupied part of East Germany by unifying the German Communist Party with the Social Democratic Party. Thereby he created the puppet socialist Unity Party and paid way for establishing anti-fascist Democratic Republic. As part of it, the Soviets stripped their occupied zone of the factories, technicians, and wealth as war reparations. As a good will measure, the Soviet Union retained the road and rail access, the three air corridors to fly to Berlin from Hamburg, luka borg and Frankfurt that connected the allied occupation zone to west Germany.

Germans in The East were hostile to the Soviet Union in free elections held in 1946. Berliners voted overwhelmingly for non-communists to sit on the city government in January 1947. The British and American zones were economically unified the French joining the following year. This was the first step towards the future West German state. In 1948 the London debt agreement had concluded reducing West Germany's payments by 50 percent aiding economic recovery. The Marshall aid plan was also extended to the Western Allied occupation zones. A system of federal government was put in place, the Soviets reacted to this by walking out of talks with the other allied powers. In addition Soviet Union also imposed restrictions on Western military and passenger traffic from the Western occupation zones to Berlin. Every truck and train leaving Berlin was also searched by Soviet authorities. The US, Britain and France introduced a new currency for their zones, the Deutsche Mark. The Soviets refused to recognize it in East Berlin but it was to be used in all four sectors of the city unofficially. Stalin decided to settle the scores in Berlin once and for all. The day after the introduction of the Deutsche Mark, the Soviet forces halted all traffic from West Germany to West Berlin. The Soviet propaganda machine went into overdrive against the West and rumors spread that the Soviets would take over West Berlin by force. German communists rioted and blockaded West German officials from attending meetings in East Berlin. On the 24th of June, the Soviets cut all land and water connections to West Berlin. In response, the US and Britain stopped all rail traffic to East Germany over time drying up vital steel and coal imports retarding the German economy. On the 25th of June, the Soviets stopped all food supplies into West Berlin. The only way in and out of West Berlin remained the three air corridors when the blockade began. West Berlin had 36 days’ worth of food and 45 days of coal for heating and the much-reduced post-war allied armies were heavily outnumbered by the Soviet Army. Stalin felt sure that the US and Britain would not want to go to war over West Berlin. General clay in Berlin felt the Soviets were bluffing trying to obtain political concessions and also unwilling to provoke World War III. It was the first big test for the Western Bloc in the Cold War.

The Airlift:

Under such circumstances, after careful evaluation of different options available, the US together with the help of Great Britain planned an Airlift under the leadership of General Lucius De Clay, of the US army and General Brian Robertson of the British army. Each day West Berlin would need 646 tons of wheat and flour, 125 tons of cereals, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, five tons of whole milk for four children, three tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese: in total 1534 tons of foodstuffs would have to be flown in daily to support around 2 million people. but the worse was to follow. In order to supply power and heating, another 3475 tons of coal, diesel and petrol would have to be flown in daily. The grand total was 5009 tons each day, seven days a week. [1]

Indian Connection

General Albert Wedemeyer, the US Army Chief of Plans and Operations, was in Europe on an inspection tour when the crisis broke out. He had been the commander of the US-China-Burma-India theater in 1944–45 and he had a detailed knowledge of the previously-conducted largest airlift by America to China from over the Himalayas which is famously called as “The Hump”. His endorsement of the airlift option gave it a major boost. He had put Major General William H Tunner to task who had conducted an operation at a similar scale. Maj. Gen Tunner had led the airlift over the Himalayas in World War 2 to supply nationalist China (under the leadership of Chang Kai sheik) from Kolkata (India). During “The Hump” General Tunner made extensive use of over 47,000 local population in United India and utilized even elephants to lift 55-gallon fuel drums into the aircraft [2]. The experience that he gained in this operation came in handy for conducting the Berlin Airlift. He was made in charge of the unified the US and RAF operations under a single command. As a part of Airlift 126 C-54 type Aircraft were utilized. Each aircraft was manned by three crews to keep them going round-the-clock.

Image Source: By Henry Ries / USAF - United States Air Force Historical Research Agency via Cees Steijger (1991), "A History of USAFE", Voyageur, ISBN: 1853100757; USAF photo 070119-F-0000R-101 [1], Public Domain,
By Henry Ries / USAF

Impact on German Psyche:

The Berlin Airlift was unprecedented in a scale that many records had been set in terms of capacity and process, men and material who were involved during the whole operation. The lack of resources at one point had led to a situation where even ordinary Berliners volunteered in large numbers to unload the aircraft and many were former Luftwaffe ground crew from WWII. The record time for unloading 10 tons of coal from a C-54 aircraft by a 12man German team was five minutes when the operation began. Later it was reduced to 45 seconds by the end of August 1948. One and a half thousand flights a day were delivering 4500 tons of cargo enough to keep the West Berliners alive. The proof of prudence of the decision for the Berlin Airlift is how it was perceived in post war Germany. It had laid foundation for the betterment of relationship between people of the two countries US and Germany. Young people who were kids during the 1940’s fondly remember the Berlin Airlift where some allied planes dropped parachuted chocolates and sweets for them over Berlin city. That is how the term “RosinenBomber” was born. The pilots of Allied Airforce helped to create a new atmosphere of friendship between the defeated (Germany) and the victors (US, Great Britain). Thus, Berlin Airlift came to be known as an operation that is more than just the provision of essential goods. The idea that the allied pilots from the US, Great Britain had burnt the midnight oil to put smiles on the faces of German children touched the hearts and minds of German public though it is of propaganda value for allies in the cold war era. The Berlin Airlift came to be perceived in general as a first victory for Allies in the cold war era after the end of WWII. Berlin Airlift is also a major propaganda defeat for Soviet Union. In 1949, Soviet Union under the leadership of Joseph Stalin lifted the blockade owing to realistic options that he did not have to stop the airlift by the allied forces. A fair analysis of the Berlin blockade indicates that it was not as illegitimate as it seemed. Indeed, the post war era proved chaotic, and dividing of Germany into four regions by the Victors of WWII created grave unforeseen problems. Especially, Parting Berlin was even more difficult as it was deep in the Soviet zone. What had foolishly been forgotten was to issue a formal agreement that assured the western Allies overland access to their territories. It had simply been assumed that the western forces would be given access, and no one in power expected a conflict with the Soviet Union that would make an explicit agreement necessary. This was naivety on a big scale. The blockade however had been handled with grace by the allied forces without retorting to violence, which otherwise would have led to starting World War III at the very place where WWII had ended. However, Berlin Airlift marks the beginning of hostilities between the East and the West, that eventually escalated and led to the formation of the Federal Republic of Germany with the support of allies, while the Soviet Union created a state on its own. The politics of the later years culminated and eventually led to the buildup of the Berlin wall between East Germany and West Germany. The division remained until many years later October 3, 1990, when the country was finally reunited.

Author: Kiran Kishore Gandikota

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